diamond geezer

 Monday, September 10, 2007

  Somewhere pretty: Parkland Walk

  Finsbury Park to Highgate (2 miles)

Crouch End stationThis is a photograph of Crouch End tube station. It's no good searching for Crouch End on an underground map because it isn't there. You might find it on a post-war tube map, but this particular station never opened and now all that's left are these two deserted platforms with a dual carriageway of nettles inbetween. The good people of Crouch End therefore have to rely on the number 91 bus to get them up to town, and the rest of us can enjoy standing in a leafy cutting in the middle of nowhere, imagining what might have been.

There was once a railway here, opened in 1867, but it was owned by the Great Northern. The line ran from Kings Cross out to Barnet, with an additional spur linking Highgate to Alexandra Palace. London Transport intended to take over the Crouch End stretch of the line in the 1930s, but the war intervened, passenger traffic declined, and services ceased in 1954. For a full history of the Northern Heights project, try clicking on one of these links.

And then, hallelujah, in 1984 Haringey Council reopened the railway line as a linear nature reserve called the Parkland Walk. The path snakes its way along embankments and through cuttings from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, and it's really rather delightful. The track can resemble a quagmire after wet weather, so it's advisable to wear stout shoes, and it can be a bit deserted in places, so you might want to take some pepper spray just in case. But I took neither, and I thoroughly enjoyed the walk.

To find the starting point I wandered halfway up the western flank of Finsbury Park to where a footbridge crosses the main London to Edinburgh railway. And there, bearing off diagonally on a raised bank between two rows of houses, that's the Parkland Walk. Before long I came to the site of the first disused station - Stroud Green - although no trace of the platforms remains. There was a fine view down over residential streets and the Gospel Oak to Barking line below, made slightly more disconcerting when I realised I was standing on a bridge built on top of a another bridge across another railway. The walk was really popular on Saturday morning and I kept passing other walkers, several dogs, mums with chunky prams, families of berry pickers and the odd cyclist. There can be a bit of tension between these various groups because the footpath gets quite narrow, soggy and/or rocky in places, and there's not always room for everyone to squeeze by. The Parkland Walk's definitely not 100% wheelchair friendly but, until the council forcibly upgrades it, that's part of its charm.

Parkland WalkContinuing westward the embankment gradually descends into a dark cutting, with tall brick arches holding back the banked-up earth. The tracks pass beneath the busy roads of N8, past a mini skate park and adventure playground built into the steep slopes. And then, wholly unexpectedly, the platforms of Crouch End station loom into sight. The view must be a lot clearer in the winter, leaf-free, especially when seen from the tiny footbridge that crosses the cutting. I clambered up a flight of seven concrete steps to walk along the eastbound platform, and was mighty relieved when a passing dogwalker led her muzzled hellhound along the opposite side. Meanwhile a lone runner emerged from the distance and panted her way along the vanished tracks inbetween. At two miles long, this stretch of the Parkland Walk makes for a perfect Parkland Jog.

After Crouch End the walk became a little less busy (which meant I got to see a few more squirrels and, ooh look, even the odd fox). The residents whose Victorian villas back onto this strip of green are very fortunate, but then they've probably paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for the privilege of living here. I paused to look down on suburbia from the narrow bridge across Northwood Road, which crumbled in the 1970s and has had to be replaced. And then onward to the heights of Highgate.

Highgate TunnelsIt's impossible to walk all the way to Highgate station because there are two tunnels in the way, and these have been blocked off because they're considered unsafe. Shame. But you can walk right up to the twin tunnel mouths for a closer look, and you'll probably have the entire cutting to yourself (so watch out for the empty condom wrappers lurking in the undergrowth). A curtain of ivy tumbles down from above and hangs low over the northern portal. See how the tunnels are rather taller than you might expect - that's so that belching steam from the original locomotives could circulate properly. And stare through the iron railings and you might just spot the faint glow of Highgate station beyond. Sorry, the gate's locked, so you're going to have to walk round the long way.

Today's Highgate station is 100% subterranean, but there used to be "high level" platforms here too, above ground, and that's where the trains to Crouch End used to depart. Those platforms are still there, locked away and inaccessible, but still pretty much preserved (and fully visible on various anoraky websites). That's the southern half of the Parkland Walk complete, ending in the bountiful heart of bourgeois Highgate. Knitting shops, pet parlours and princess party coordinators - you don't get shops like these at the other end of the line! I didn't hang around to explore because I didn't feel the need for a wholemeal baguette or an organic smoothie, and I was quite keen to move on. The Walk continued three quarters of a mile to the north, up Muswell Hill way. And more of that tomorrow...

Follow in my footsteps
Follow the original railway on an old map of London
Follow the route today on Streetmap
Lots of photographs from the Parkland Walk
More about the Parkland Walk
Haringey Council Parkland Walk Consultation (closes 28th September)
Parkland Walk upgrade proposals

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